The History of Computer Viruses

Instructor: Lyna Griffin

Lyna has tutored undergraduate Information Management Systems and Database Development. She has a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering and a Masters degree in Information Technology.

In this lesson, we will understand what viruses are. We will also examine their history from the time the idea was conceptualized and developed, to the menace it has evolved into today.

What Is A Computer Virus?

A computer virus is piece of malicious code that has been designed to replicate itself when introduced into any computing environment (its host). This host could be another computer program, the computer's operating system partition, a document, or a removable drive. The virus may be knowingly or unknowingly spread by the user or administrator of the infected system. Once the virus has successfully infiltrated the system, it may replicate itself in a way that adversely affects the system's available space and performance. It also may infect other programs or software installed on the host, causing system disruptions, instability, unauthorized modifications, or disability of core functions and processes. Viruses can also copy, delete, or encrypt files. Some viruses lay dormant, waiting to be triggered by some user or system action. Others are activated immediately and commence the corruption of system programs and software in the various ways described above.

History of Viruses

One of the most recognized terms in the world of cyber security is computer virus. Like any dangerous biological virus brings alarm to a scientist, the term computer virus brings fear to the administrators or users of any computer system. Viruses are never a pleasure. So where did viruses come from? Where and when did they start? How did they grow to become as menacing as they are today?

1940-1966: The Birth of Replicating Automata

Replicating Automata is a mechanism which has the ability of self-multiplication. Its birth came from mathematical and intellectual curiosity and not from malicious intent. This thought was initiated in the 1940's and subsequently published in a 1966 paper by mathematician John von Neumann. In this paper, he documented the possibilities of developing a piece of code that could copy itself, infect its host just like a biological virus, and cause any number of threats to the host system.

1971: The Creeper Program

In 1971, Bob Thomas of BBN created the very first virus, the Creeper Program. It was the first actual test of the Replicating Automata concept to see whether it was possible. He was successful and it worked. On each new host it infiltrated, it replicated itself, infected the hard drive and tried to remove itself from its previous host.

1974: The Rabbit Virus

In 1974, the Rabbit Virus was developed. This time malicious intent was ingrained in its code. The virus replicated itself within its host and caused system disruptions that adversely affected overall system performance. This continued until complete system failure or crash was achieved.

1975: The First Trojan

In 1975, John Walker, a computer programmer, created the first Trojan. A Trojan is a computer virus which cannot replicate itself but instead, propagates itself by attaching to user programs, files, or games that are transmitted or exchanged. It is the executed primarily through end user activity.

Around this time, there were a number of popular games called Animal Games. These games used a set of questions to decipher what animal a user was thinking of. John Walker created a version of this game which became very popular among his friends and colleagues. With no internet and smart devices at that time, it was distributed using magnetic tapes. Walker used this avenue to distribute the Pervade virus embedded in the game. Once the virus was installed on the host, it proceeded to snoop around and copy itself to all the directories on the existing host's file system. Although this was done without the host's knowledge or permission, its effects were not destructive.

1986: The Brain Boot Virus

In 1986, there was a computer store in Pakistan run by two brothers: Basit and Amjad Farooq. In their mounting frustration from people illegally copying their software, they developed a piece of malicious code called the Brain Boot Virus which would alter the boot sector of any floppy disk used to the copy their software. This became known as the first PC virus, due to the increased development and use of the personal computer at that time.

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